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Topic section: Images as evidence
Images as evidence
International news events remind us of the power of the image in the battle to control political allegiance. This kind of image manipulation has often been a favoured weapon within the armoury of dictators. A propaganda culture, fostered in Russia under Lenin (1870-1924), reached its peak during Stalin’s regime in the 1930s and 1940s.
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Stalin cartoon, about 1935.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

…Russians were legally required to deface images of dissidents

Communist Party officials, leaders and members of Stalin’s inner circle were deleted from state photos as they fell out of favour. This state-sanctioned image manipulation even reached into the home, where Russians were legally required to deface images of dissidents appearing within their own family libraries and albums. Removal from images usually indicated a horrifying parallel in reality – people thus blacklisted were often sentenced to murderous forced labour in Siberia, or were coldly executed.

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Joseph Stalin, Soviet leader, addressing voters, 16 December 1937.
NMPFT/Syndication International


Sometimes people’s fortunes reversed – subjects were readmitted to photos and those who survived the forced labour camps might find themselves re-admitted to the party hierarchy after years in exile.

Collector and writer David King has spent many years reinstating those who were erased from Stalinist photography. His work, The Commissar Vanishes…, can be seen as an epitaph for those forcibly removed, and as a place where image restoration helps a culture come to terms with enforced amnesia.

Image manipulation has taken other insidious forms, being used to influence spiritual attitudes and beliefs. Spirit album photos by William Hope (1863-1933), dating from the 1920s, use double and even triple exposure techniques to render the appearance of ghostly apparitions around the sitter. Hope founded the spiritualist society that became known as the Crewe Circle.

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Elderly couple with a young female 'spirit', about 1920.
Credit: NMPFT


Hope’s work gained momentum in the aftermath of the First World War, as he tapped into a rich seam of bereavement and denial. Relatives who had lost loved ones in wartime were often willing and desperate to reach beyond the grave.

In 1922, Harry Price (1881-1948), an investigator, exposed Hope for his image deception in a Journal of Psychic Research report. Price had provided Hope with secretly marked glass plates. Later, he was able to prove that Hope had substituted doctored negatives by sleight of hand during photographic processing.

Harry Houdini, (1874-1926), world-famous magician and escapologist, was another man determined to expose the deceptions played on the public by mediums and other spiritualists. This fakery included the use of image manipulation in spirit photography.

In later life, Houdini began a programme of magic and education events in an effort to enable adults and children to distinguish between science fact and science fiction. His blend of entertainment and rationalism was hugely successful, sowing some early seeds of distrust in the manipulated photographic image.
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Topic section: Images of ourselves
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Mainstream celebrity culture thrives on youthfulness, beauty, health, wealth and social connections. Celebrities tread a fine line between controlling the exploitation of their image and being exploited by it. Glamour photography, Hello and OK!-style magazines and the paparazzi offer varying ways of perceiving celebrity.  > more

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Topic section: Images in advertising
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Advertisers often manipulate images to help sell their products by making reality look more desirable. They keep producing new, more seductive images to replace those that are past their ‘use-by’ date so as to lock us into a cycle of spending and consuming.  > more
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